Posts Tagged 'books'

Golden book of dinosaurs version 2.0

I don’t think the Golden books were ever quite as big in the UK as they were in the U.S., but we certainly had them over here and I do recall coming across the now classic Golden Book of Dinosaurs as a child. As with many such books it was well illustrated with many pictures and relatively little text, and it certainly had appeal – almost everyone I know who has mentioned it has warm memories of the book.

It is then a tough act to follow, even in the modern age where there are huge numbers of competing titles and this is the route taken by Bob Bakker and Luis Rey. To pay tribute to the old, but make it modern and contemporary, and also keep it ‘competitive’ is no easy task, but I think they have done admirably. The text is crisp and simple and easy to read and is written in a manner that I am absolutely sure will appeal to a great many children with some evocative ideas and explanations. What is also nice is that it doesn’t shay away in places from a little technical language or complex ideas (like fenestra in skulls to separate mammals from reptiles) that help go beyond the mere basics.

There are some annoyances though. Yes, excitement and interesting hypotheses can help draw people in and especially when aimed at a young audience it can be difficult to make things clear and simple but also keep them accurate, but there are places where the text leans on minority or untested hypotheses (sauropods battling with their necks and whip-cracking tails) and some irritating and unnecessary terminology (Bakker’s awful predilection for calling pterosaurs “dactyls”).


The art however is very Luis Rey. I know not everyone likes his style, and if not, well this won’t be for you. But for those who do, it’s a typically wonderful mix of the dramatic, bold and bright with good anatomical details and getting in plenty of feathers and the like in all the right places. There are updated versions of older pictures (like the brooding oviraptorosaur) and plenty of new ones, not least the cover set to mimic the original book.

Overall though this book is aimed at children and needs to be judged with that in mind. With that forefront the book is great – I’m sure young children will devour it and it will generate both interest and understanding of dinosaurs. As a way to excite those who are already keen or draw in those who have yet to experience dinosaurs I am sure this will do a great job and that’s exactly something I can’t say for too many kids books on dinosaurs. Great job guys.

The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd edition – a brief review

The original ‘Complete Dinosaur’ book was one of those I never quite got around to getting my hands on. I only really became involved in dinosaur research sometime after it had come out (way back in 1999) and it was (obviously through no fault of it’s own) starting to date by then. It was quite clearly a great and compact synthesis and review of a huge amount of data and in the days before wikipedia represented and excellent and authoritative volume and the kind of thing too rarely produced for scientific disciplines.

So here we are, a good decade on and a new edition is out. In fact it shipped a while ago but authors outside of the U.S. have been slow to get their copies. Mine turned up at the weekend and so obviously the following review is naturally brief and based on little more than a flick through and a skim of various chapters and concerted reading of only a few choice bits and bobs. It’s a mammoth 1100+ pages so I doubt anyone will be coming with a full review anytime soon, but the basics are rather obvious and that’s what will form the basis of my thoughts here.

First off, to get it out of the way, the bad. Naturally any subject like dinosaur biology is going to have some controversy in it and no one is an expert on everything, and of course you have multiple editors and authors to satisfy which is going to cause conflict. In short, there are some bits presented as ‘correct’ that I think many, if not most, researchers would disagree with as being incorrect, out of date or just off (the short section on pterosaurs buried in one of the chapters is, well, not good to say the least). That’s a bit unhelpful for something billed as up-to-date and new and aimed at a broad general audience. The layout of the chapters is a bit odd too in places – there’s a chapter each of stegosaurs and ankylosaurs, but all non-avian theropods are lumped into a single block. While I’ve not read them yet, there’s three whole chapters devoted to dinosaur physiology (in addition to a chapter on growth and one on heterochrony) which seems excessive. Some of the figures don’t print too crisply (though this might be more to do with the paper or of course just my copy, but I don’t think so) which is a shame, but no real information is lost. The one thing I really dislike is the huge waste of space. The margins of each page a fully a third of the width, and while figures are spread across the page and some headings appear in the margins, there are dozens and dozens of pages where only 2/3rd of the space is used. It’s a horrible waste of paper and of course this is only exaggerated in a volume that over a thousand pages long, and of course rather egregious when it’s a scientific volume and scientists if anyone should appreciate and understand the concern in wasting resources.

Now to the good and there is much of it. What the book tries and succeeds in doing is bridging the gap between ‘typical’ dinosaur / palaeo books and the scientific literature. There’s a liberal use of scientific terms and citing of research, but all of the terms are explained in the text and the citations aid, and don’t dominate, the statements made. Someone with a real interest and enthusiasm who has gobbled up all manner of books like Tom Holtz’s or Darren Niash’s would still probably really struggle if you plopped them down with a copy of The Dinosauria or a handful of published papers. This book will get them to a point where they could probably appreciate these works, and that’s some achievement.

That this is possible is down in good part to the layout of the book. It’s not an encyclopedia as such or just a procession of chapters on various clades etc. but a series of long essays each tacking a subject of dinosaur research. While birds, sauropodomorphs and marginocephalians are tackled in chapters for example, we get sections on footprints, how fossils are mounted in museums, the basics of biogeography, excavating fossils, taxonomy, context from historical discoveries, basic osteology and myology and so on and so on. While it might be a slog for the non-expert to get through 50 pages on physiology say, the writing is aimed at a non-expert audience and with a style that helps to try and elevate the reader and put everything in context with clear examples and illustrations and laying out the basics of the problems, evidence and solutions.

There’s nice coverage of issues rarely looked at in research papers as well. A chapter on reconstructing dinosaurs and art by Dough Henderson is a particular joy as he dissects his piece on Coelophysis which is a personal favourite of mine to boot. Things like excavations are covered too which do tend to be learned ‘on the job’ when it comes to palaeo training with no obvious paper or manual that I’ve seen in the technical literature, but again here there’s a great short section that would give any novice an idea of what can and should be done when prospecting and digging up material.

This is also a work that will benefit and be used by professionals. Some areas of research and anatomy do lack good, solid reviews and can be hard for PhD students or even seasoned researchers to get to grips with. I’ve never really had to do much with braincases (for which I am grateful) and each time I have even a passing dealing with them I have to crack open a raft of papers and try to get back to speed and cross reference various bits and pieces. Here though is a chapter on dinosaur neurology with various endocasts shown, labels for all the classic cranial nerves and their typical positions and each section of the brain labelled and discussed. It’ll be the first thing I reach for the next time I need to check something or as a simple reference that reviews the basic information if I want to make mention of the subject in a paper.

In short, while I obviously have at least a slight hand in this as the coauthor of a chapter and friend and colleague to many of the authors and editors involved, it’s hard not to give this a hearty recommendation on balance. As I said above, I really have only look at this superficially and read barely a few dozen pages from various chapters, and there is a vast amount to catch up on, but it looks great and will provide much information and detail for huge numbers of researchers, students and general enthusiasts alike. I look forwards to digging into it more fully, but for now I’m very happy with it and I think a great many readers will be too.

Chunk of this are visible with Google Books for those who want to take a look. Bonus Musings points are available for anyone who spots me in there, I did sneak into one photo oddly enough.

Book review: When Dinos Dawned….

I would have put the full title of the book in the title of of the post, but frankly I thought it might end up filling the whole page. “When Dinos Dawned, Mammals got Munched & Pterosaurs took Flight: a Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic” is probably one of the longest titles going, but this is perhaps the only real criticism I can have of this book.

This entry is the latest in a series for National Geographic by author / artist Hannah Bonner. It’s aimed at children quite clearly, but I think there’s enough depth to be of interest to adults and bring a little enlightenment to even knowledgeable readers. The science is basically perfect, and the material is presented in a fun and accessible manner. The drawings are simple in style, but extremely accurate in terms of anatomy and settings and nicely executed – there are ‘cartoon’ style animals for various panels, but the majority of the content is more like the cover shown here.

The Triassic is of course a time when lots of interesting things were happening. While perhaps understandably most books like this would focus on dinosaurs and by extension the Jurassic and Cretaceous, there is a lot more to the Mesozoic than just dinosaurs and the Triassic has most of that covered. Odd crocs, aetosaurs, phytosaurs, the first pterosaurs, the first icthyosaurs, prolacertiforms and the weirdness that is things like Longisquama. A lot of these are unlikely to be on the radar of a young dinosaur enthusiast, so this really helps fill in the picture of what was going on in terms of evolution and the changing faunas.

Obviously the reptiles get to dominate this, but mammals, insects and even plants get a decent look-in and are put in context of what was going on. It was also good to see lots of more obscure things get a look in – even books that do cover aetosaurs or the like will often include a token animal – I certainly can’t think of any previous effort that covered three (count them!) drepanosaurs. When the rhynchosaurs, Panphagia, Lotosaurus, Odontochelys and Proterosuchus also get a mention and are illustrated, well it’s just lovely.

At this point I should probably note that I’m reviewing this because I was lucky enough to be sent a preview copy. My colleague Corwin Sullivan played a major role as a consultant on this book given his work on various Triassic critters and Hannah also contacted me during her research (but I don’t recall even giving her any specific help in the end). Still, she was kind enough to arrange for me to get a free copy and I’ll gladly cover it here (especially after I spotted a reference to the Musings in a list of useful websites in the back). Certainly the accuracy is to Corwin’s credit for his advice and to Hannah’s for taking it, and the book certainly benefits as a result.

Overall though this is an excellent effort with much to recommend about it – good science, nice art, a great theme and well written. While I’d imagine the market is a little limited, this is going to go down very will with all kinds of kids who like their dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties but want to know more and have more than enough books discussing Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus. Great stuff.


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